Review of Here’s the Pitch

Newman, Roberta J. Here’s the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Pp. 319. Bibliography, epilogue, illustrations, index and notes. $34.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.

“What a combination, all across the nation.” The 1960s jingle, “Baseball and Ballantine,” hawked beer, but it aptly described the relationship between baseball and advertising that dates more than a century. As one ad agency discovered, there was something compelling about “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.

University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

From Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter and David Ortiz, and from newspapers to social media, baseball and advertising have been “nearly conjoined twins,” author Roberta J. Newman asserts in her absorbing book, Here’s the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising

Newman, a clinical professor in the liberal studies program at New York University, co-authored Black Baseball, Black Business: Race Enterprise and the Fate of the Segregated Dollar with Joel Nathan Rosen in 2014. In Here’s the Pitch, the Brooklyn-born Newman conducts an academic study of baseball and advertising. By no means is this an exhaustive compilation, nor is it strictly a historical work. But Newman hits the high points with plenty of examples in her serious examination of the subject. Readers who grew up watching their favorite teams on television — or listening to their games on radio — will experience many “ah-ha” moments, and “I remember that” as they read Here’s the Pitch.

It was probably inevitable that baseball would be joined at the hip with advertising. It just took the right players to exploit it. Certainly, advertising signs inside baseball stadiums during the early 1900s were a constant reminder to a captive audience of mostly male fans. Tobacco, whiskey and beer dominated, and with good reason. In his exhaustive four-volume set about nineteenth century baseball, author Howard W. Rosenberg asserts that Cap Anson, arguably baseball’s biggest star of that era, did not drink socially and did not smoke cigarettes, although he did smoke cigars. That limited his marketability with advertisers. A 1905 ad from the Queen City Tobacco Company trumpeted that Napoleon Lajoie chewed Red Devil Tobacco, with a petulant “Ask him if he don’t” tagline.

But it was Cobb, baseball’s most intense superstar who was financially savvy away from the diamond, who saw a way to add revenue streams to his bank account. Cobb, although featured on cards inserted into packs of tobacco (along with other baseball players), was not compensated for his image, and he was “emphatically opposed” to tobacco consumption (p. 37). Players were granted the legal “right to publicity” in 1953 — the ability to control the use of their likeness on products (p. 39) — so Cobb had no recourse to challenge his image on tobacco cards during his playing days, which ended in 1928.

However, while Cobb famously became rich by investing in Coca-Cola stocks, he also fattened his wallet when he began endorsing a nutritional supplement called Nuxated Iron. When a famous athlete like Cobb issues a testimonial for a product, Newman writes, he was transferring “the culturally constituted image of the celebrity to consumers.” (p. 41). To be like Cobb, one must use the products the Detroit Tigers’ superstar endorsed, the reasoning went. And it was effective. Being fit, living a clean life and demonstrating a positive work ethic worked for Cobb, who knew how to manage himself. However, it took a manager with great patience and a genius for marketing skills to make Babe Ruth a money machine.

Christy Walsh, Newman writes, created what amounted to the Babe Ruth industry, carefully crafting the Bambino’s public image (p. 56). Given Ruth’s penchant for drinking, overeating and cavorting with women, that amounted to a monumental task. However, Walsh arranged Ruth’s barnstorming tours, personal appearances, handled his endorsements and kept a tight rein on his finances. To be sure, Ruth had money to spend, but under Walsh’s watchful eye, he did not spend it all. Walsh, above all, realized that in order for Ruth to be successful as a product endorser, he had to have a personal connection with his audience — and the marketing whiz was able to achieve that. During his lifetime, Ruth endorsed gasoline, shoes, mattresses, automobiles, cookies and breakfast products. There also were products bearing his name, such as baseballs, gloves, bats, caps and clothing. Ruth continues to generate income more than seven decades after his death.

When baseball broke the modern color line in 1947, it opened up new avenues for advertising possibilities. Newman digs deeply into this subject, beginning with Jackie Robinson. Black Americans who flocked to the urban areas of the United States during the 1940s found jobs as World War II created more opportunities. That meant there was more disposable income, which translated into increased attendance at baseball games and increased purchasing power (p. 121). Advertisers quickly realized that urban black America was “a large and largely untapped market.” (p. 128). But while baseball was integrated, mainstream advertising was not during the early portions of Robinson’s career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a perfect world, Newman writes, the moment Robinson broke the color line he should have been a star product endorser for all, not just for blacks. However, the wheels of change turned slowly.

Robinson did break the ice for fellow teammates Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, who endorsed cigarettes during the 1950s. To smoke Chesterfield or Old Gold cigarettes, Newman suggests, metaphorically gave consumers the chance to inhale “the same magical air as their heroes.” (p. 136). Newman also describes the integrated ad for Rheingold beer in 1951 and 1952, where Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees sat elbow to elbow with Monte Irvin of the New York Giants as they ate dinner. The ad was published only in the black press, but was still a major leap, demonstrating cordiality and even camaraderie between the two races.

Mickey Mantle was, like Ruth, a magnet for endorsements during and after his Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees. He was “the complete package,” Newman writes (p. 161), endorsing beer, cigarettes, and breakfast foods (“lots and lots of breakfast foods”). Mantle was also able to poke fun at himself, whining “I want my Maypo” in one televised spot. Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford noted in 1969 that the Maypo commercials had “an underground art quality to them” because they were almost exclusively shown during children’s television shows, and used athletes like Mantle, Willie Mays, Tom Seaver and Carl Yastrzemski. Mantle also appeared with Mays, Jamie Farr of “M*A*S*H” and Georgia Engel of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in a Blue Bonnet margarine television commercial. The ad’s punchline comes when Mantle and Mays, both wearing bonnets, warble “Everything’s better, with Blue Bonnet on it.” Mantle was the epitome of strength, power, good looks and had “a devil-may-care attitude” to consumers through the products he endorsed. (p. 163). Mantle’s teammate, Yogi Berra, also was an advertising gold mine. Despite his homely image, Berra’s perceived wisdom (Berra-isms) put him on good footing with consumers, whether he was talking to a cat in a Puss n’ Boots commercial, touting Yoo-hoo (a product he invested in), Miller Lite and Aflac insurance (“and they give you cash, which is just as good as money”).

Advertising took an interesting turn in the twenty-first century when Rafael Palmeiro endorsed Viagra. Palmeiro, in his late thirties in 2002, was able to appeal to men in their thirties and forties — precisely the market Pfizer, Viagra’s manufacturer, hoped to attract. (p. 195). The ad worked, and so did the tagline —“Let’s just say it works” — until Palmeiro was suspended in 2005 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. That came several months after Palmeiro’s finger-wagging testimony before Congress, when he denied taking steroids.

Newman devotes a chapter to the rising influence of baseball players of Hispanic heritage, particularly Ortiz, the former Boston Red Sox slugger. Newman notes that Latino players had to overcome the “Chico Escuela factor,” referencing the broken English-speaking character “Saturday Night Live” comedian Garrett Morris made famous in the late 1970s.  Chico Escuela “came to represent all Latino players,” Newman writes (p. 210), a direct descendant of the thieving Frito Bandito put out in Frito Lays commercials from 1967 to 1971 and an ancestor of Gidget, the yapping chihuahua who told consumers “yo quiero Taco Bell” in ads that aired during the 1990s. Players like Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera and Ortiz have helped guide attention away from ethnic and racial stereotypes. Ortiz particularly took the genre in a different direction, playing a hip-hop/pop disc jockey in Dunkin’ Donuts’ “Summer Chill” advertising spots. The music was horrible and the commercials Ortiz shot with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski were hokey, but advertising executives deemed it “sticky” because it generated millions of hits on social media (p. 225). Even if a commercial is awful, it’s pure gold to advertisers if consumers remember it and the product it is selling.

Newman’s final example is the farewell tour of Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop who ended his career in 2014. He was “a grownup version of the All-American boy in the twenty-first century,” Newman writes. (p. 233). And Nike’s “Re2pect” tour (replacing the “s” with Jeter’s uniform number) was a yearlong lovefest of sentimentality for the Yankees’ captain. He left the game, as Gatorade’s “Made in New York” ads suggested, by doing it “his way,” as the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played in the background. Quite a sendoff.

Newman uses fourteen illustrations in Here’s the Pitch, leaving the reader wishing for more. Her prose is scholarly but not condescending, and her bibliography draws from one hundred forty-eight sources. There are also twenty-four pages of notes, divided by chapters. Newman’s critiques of advertising and baseball are thorough and are a valuable addition in the library of baseball books. Advertising can be subliminal, but its underlying influence among consumers is as strong today as it was when Cobb and Ruth urged fans to buy the products they were endorsing.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts asports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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